Government

Drunken driving down in pandemic, but will it last?

After state began reopening, Iowa saw jump in traffic deaths

Sgt. Andrew Rich holds a breath test tube Thursday in the processing area for people arrested for drunken driving at the
Sgt. Andrew Rich holds a breath test tube Thursday in the processing area for people arrested for drunken driving at the Iowa City Police Department. The department has seen a drop in drunken driving arrests since the pandemic began. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Liquor sales surged at the beginning of the pandemic, but Iowans apparently are choosing to do their drinking while staying at home — and not getting behind the wheel.

According to data from Criminal & Juvenile Justice Planning, a division within the Iowa Department of Human Rights, drunken driving cases have dropped off significantly this year.

Using information from the judicial branch’s Case Management System, the report shows there were 6,559 drunken driving charges — including operating boats and ATVs under the influence — between March 15 and Sept. 12 last year. During that same period this year, there were 4,383 — a 33 percent drop.

That jibes with a 21 percent decrease in vehicle traffic across Iowa during that time, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

For Corridor police departments, it’s not hard to see where the drop in charges is coming from.

“It’s the pandemic,” said Iowa City Police Capt. Denise Brotherton. “Back in March when everything shut down, (Iowa City) was like a ghost town.”

Brotherton said with bars and restaurants closed, offering only carry out or operating at reduced capacity, there simply were fewer places for people to go for an adult beverage.

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“You couldn’t go to a bar,” Brotherton said. “You couldn’t go to a restaurant. You could basically buy your alcohol and go home.”

The drop off in drunken driving arrests was particularly dramatic in Iowa City. Data shows 298 arrests from March 15 to Sept. 12, 2019, but only 71 from that same period this year.

Cedar Rapids also saw a decrease in drunken driving arrests this year, though not as significant. During the same time period, there were 225 drunken driving arrests in 2019 and 175 this year.

“People just weren’t out and about as much,” said Cedar Rapids Police Sgt. Graham Campshure.

Not only were bars and restaurants closed, but Cedar Rapids is home to numerous entertainment and sporting venues that were closed much of the year, including the U.S. Cellular Center, McGrath Amphitheatre and Veterans Memorial Stadium. That meant no concerts, no plays or musicals and no Kernels baseball.

“Those are all events where people are consuming alcohol,” Campshure said.

Iowa State Patrol Lt. Nathan Ludwig, however, said troopers haven’t seen a significant decrease in drunken driving across the state. There were 740 drunken driving arrests by troopers between March 15 and Sept. 12, 2019, and 708 in that time this year.

“We saw a reduction in traffic big time in April and May,” Ludwig said. But once the state started opening back up, traffic volume increased as well. So did fatalities, Ludwig said.

“In July and August, we saw a big jump in fatalities,” he said.

Iowa saw 14 traffic fatalities in March and 17 in April, Iowa DOT data show, but then 44 in July, 51 in August and 39 in September. As of Friday, there have been 255 traffic fatalities in Iowa this year, up three from the same period in 2019.

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After many jurisdictions saw the dip in drunken driving arrests, there are signs they could be picking up.

Brotherton said at the onset of the pandemic, officers were advised to conduct traffic stops only for “major” safety issues. That changed when University of Iowa students returned in late August for fall classes, she said.

“We noticed as things started to open back up and students came back, we had to start doing traffic enforcement again,” Brotherton said. “It wasn’t safe. Speeds were up. We needed to get back on this before we had a major problem and someone got seriously hurt.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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